School surveillance: Is Big Brother spying on students?

Some pupils are monitored by CCTV cameras as frequently prison inmates

For people of a certain age, the idea of school discipline is synonymous with the strap. But nowadays, some worry that we could be heading towards a new and more insidious era of authoritarianism in the form of school surveillance systems.

CCTV camera surveillance systems are increasingly being used in schools to maintain safety and security – but also for the surveillance of students on the grounds of tackling bullying and vandalism.

According to research carried out by the University of Salford, pupils in UK schools are now as frequently monitored as inmates in prison and customers at airports.

Lisa Kelly, a primary school teacher who has completed a master's thesis on the impact of surveillance on school communities, says this raises a host of privacy issues of cameras in classrooms and toilets.


“Schools are adopting surveillance technology at an alarming rate internationally, despite the tension with privacy, or potential effects on the school population arising from the use of CCTV by school management,” she writes.

"The Data Protection Commission acknowledges that CCTV may be beneficial around the perimeter of schools, but unambiguously states that CCTV should not be used to monitor staff or students, and should not be installed in classrooms, offices or any area where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy."

The practice has sparked controversy here. Belfast Royal Academy, was forced to remove cameras from the boys toilets last September following a backlash from parents. It had said the cameras had been installed on a "precautionary basis" and were not activated.

In 2011, a secondary school in Co Kildare was ordered to remove monitoring cameras from student toilets after parents made a complaint to the Data Protection Commissioner. The commissioner said each school must provide a "convincing justification for the use of every camera in and around its premises".

CCTV companies say every new school is being offered cameras as standard for security reasons and to prevent bullying.

One Dublin-based security firm goes further and promises schools the ability “to keep track of teacher attendance and punctuality” and to “keep track of teacher attitude and methodology in teaching”.

Another firm, TEC Security, says the cameras it provides are for safety reasons and even public health.

“I even know of one school using CCTV for temperature reading,” says Stephen Tyrrell of TEC Security. “This is a very proactive feature and shows how technology can be used for a variety of purposes. Once the policy is updated, and the community is made aware, it’s fine.”

Deputy principal Fergal O'Callaghan at Boyne Community School in Co Meath sees the presence of cameras as a positive in their school community.

“It keeps students, staff and school property safe; we have cameras both internally and externally for that one purpose,” he says.

However, Simon Lewis, Carlow principal and creator of the educational podcast If I were the Minister for Education worries that CCTV may be used for the wrong purposes.

“It’s interesting when you have it – how far people want to push it. We’ve had people asking us to see carpark footage or footage of students to sort out a behavioural concern. It becomes a free-for-all,” he says.

Restricted to perimeters

For Lewis, CCTV should only be used for security reasons. In his school, cameras are restricted to the external perimeters and the office.

Paddy Duggan, past principal of Clonakilty Community College in Cork, agrees. "It affects the school community in terms of promoting trust, relationships and community spirit," he says. "There's nothing nicer than the mingling of staff and students. The presence of a camera changes the atmosphere. It takes from what really prevents bullying and poor behaviour: good relationships."

But principals who use the technology see it as a necessary tool; they feel it empowers students. They also argue that it keeps staff and students fundamentally safe.

Hilary Treacy is a data protection adviser with the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, the management body for 96 post-primary schools.

“Schools must be transparent about where and for what purpose CCTV is used both outside and inside the school building.” The use of CCTV must be “justifiable, necessary, proportionate and reasonable”, she says.

Treacy references article 35 of the GDPR, which provides that before the employment of CCTV the controller should carry out a data protection impact statement.

“They may choose to use CCTV for a variety of purposes, but these purposes must be outlined in their policy. Appropriate signage should accompany each camera. The board of management should continue to revise the CCTV policy to ensure that its use continues to be evidence-based and appropriate,” she says.

General secretary of the Catholic Primary School Management Association Seamus Mulconry says he is is keen to remind schools that "CCTV cameras should be used for security purposes only and when students are in the school building it is better to turn them off."

Unintended consequences

While most schools insist that school surveillance is for security reasons only, some worry about unintended consequences.

Joe Power, a restorative practices development officer based in Limerick is concerned about the impact of them on building relationships with students.

“The message to students is that we don’t trust you, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for some,” he says.

“Things like CCTV can only lead to more exclusion, which then leads to poor outcomes for everyone. Schools need to deal with these issues in a way that doesn’t just push the problem down the road. I’ve done work with schools and the probation service. If they worked together, they might well prevent half the criminality in the country at source.”

Researcher Lisa Kelly acknowledges that there is “a lucrative market for CCTV technology”, but warns against “technology creep”, where cameras begin as a security measure but develop into “teacher and/or pupil surveillance”.

Social class also emerges as relevant in Kelly’s work. According to international research, pupils at disadvantaged schools may feel more criminalised by CCTV at school.

“The high-security regimes existing in schools that teach predominantly working-class pupils, may indicate an inherent lack of trust for these pupils.

“The main recommendation is that primary Irish data is required,” Kelly says. “It would be beneficial to gain insight into the attitudes and perceptions of both pupils and teachers on CCTV in schools.”

Most agree that getting the balance right is key for schools – and the wider school community.

Child and adolescent psychoanalytical psychotherapist Colman Noctor positions himself firmly on the fence when it comes to the use of CCTV in schools.

“I’m someone who sees the impact of bullying on the wellbeing of children every day, so I believe everything possible must be done to mitigate against it. However, I’m aware of the dangers of infringing individual rights.”

CCTV in schools: Data protection guidelines

Security: The Data Protection Commissioner recognises that CCTV recording may be justified for securing the perimeter of school property.

Classroom: CCTV may not be justifiable for day-to-day monitoring of staff and students. The Data Protection Commissioner advises that CCTV cameras should not enter the classroom itself.

Any use beyond monitoring the perimeter of the school premises may need to be fully justifiable and evidence-based, with a very high threshold for such evidence.

Trouble spots: If CCTV recording is being used to tackle and prevent criminal/anti-social behaviour/theft/vandalism in known trouble spots, the school may have to demonstrate that patrolling the area periodically by staff was not working and that the anti-social behaviour was continuing.

Covert surveillance: The use of CCTV by a school without an individual's knowledge is generally unlawful. There should be no covert surveillance using CCTV at school.